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What Matters: How Is a Child’s Gender Identity Born?

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Are biological sex and gender the same thing? Currently, there is a lot of confusion between the terms sex and gender. Many people see sex only as a label, a trait designated at birth by the doctor, according to the baby’s genitalia. But sex is much more than that.

First, because sex is not designated, it is biological and includes physiological factors such as genitalia, hormones, and chromosomes. So sex is an innate trait (because we’re born with it); is dimorphic (distinguishes humans as males and females) and stable, because sex does not change (surgical interventions can even alter a person’s sexual appearance, but don´t alter the person’s genetic code).

Second, biological sex is not based on how one feels, or how a person identifies from the inside out. Sex is based on a person’s genetic code, pediatricians do not ‘determine’ the baby’s sex; they announce it based on the physical reality of the baby’s body in front of them.

The identity of a child’s sex begins at conception and is marked by biology through what is determined on the sex chromosomes. Each individual has 46 chromosomes, two of these chromosomes correspond to the sexual pair, which is what determines the biological sex. The chromosomes of the sex pair XX correspond to the female sex, and those represented by XY correspond to the male sex. 

The characteristics of sex refer to biological or physical distinctions, and it does not depend on the culture in which the person belongs. For example, all females will be born with a uterus, ovaries, vagina and will end up menstruating regardless of the culture from which they are inserted.

Unlike biological sex, the concept of gender goes beyond sexual differences between boys and girls and encompasses how these differences were socially constructed. The use of skirts or dresses for example, in western culture, is quite common among women. In the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, sarongs, robes, or dresses can be seen in men as well. This way we can realise that gender characteristic are variable and depend on the society in which the person is inserted. From the relationship between biological sex and gender, the concept of gender identity is born.

The big question is that before talking about gender identity with children, it is necessary to understand what they know about their own body, and how this process happens in their minds.

How the child understands the concept of gender

The American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, describes in his gender development theory how children understand what gender is and how it is applied in their everyday life:

Around age three: children are able to label what is a boy and what is a girl by their physical characteristics. However, they believe that biological sex can still change, and that it is not permanent. 

At age five: children believe that a person’s gender varies according to play, clothing, or physical appearance. For example, if a child sees a boy wearing a dress, they will likely believe he will become a girl.

By age seven: Kohlberg suggests that children understand that biological sex is a stable trait, remaining the same for life. He further postulates that children develop gender roles as they understand that sex remains fixed.

Piaget, on the other hand, observed the development of gender identity in children, through daily play and social interactions. According to him, 5-year-olds choosing toys according to their genre. So, girls chose to play with dolls, while boys preferred super heroes and action figure toys. He also noted that at this age boys and girls would rather play with their corresponding genre, rather than playing together. As children embody their gender identity, they are more motivated to relate to children belonging to their group.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, for children, the concepts of sex and gender do not differ from each other. They generally choose their toys according to their physical gender, and this is because very young children see gender as a personal characteristic. From a young child’s perspective, playing with a toy or wearing certain clothing simply means ‘I like this.’ Children do not yet have the understanding of how their choices’ may be commonly associated with one gender or another.

Gender X play: is there something wrong with my child?

Some parents and teachers may feel uncomfortable seeing a child playing with a toy that does not match their biological sex. The cause for this may be what is called ‘gender stereotypes’, which are the beliefs and expectations that people expect from boys and girls

Children develop gender stereotypes between 3 and 6 years of age. In practice, gender stereotypes can appear in the form of playing (girls play with dolls, boys with toy cars), of dressing (girls wear pink, boys blue), occupation (women are nurses, men are doctors), or temperament (girls are sensitive, boys are aggressive).

According to the developmental psychologist and emerita professor of the University of Texas in Austin, Rebecca Bigler, children have strict beliefs when it comes to gender stereotypes, but only because it is so they are created. ‘One thing you can do is expose children to the media that portrays people who contradict gender norms, such as the Mulan film, who show girls being rude and clumsy.’

It’s worth noting that play is the child’s way of understanding and interpreting the world (or situations) to which he/she belongs, and it has nothing to do with girls´ things or boys’ things. To elucidate this, I´d like to introduce a situation experienced by a 5-year-old student from a kindergarten at a Brazilian school:

After listening to the fairy tale Cinderella, John (not his real name) was enchanted by the fairy godmother, and how she was able to turn Cinderella’s anguish into joy. The fairy was able to take Cinderella to the ball to meet the prince, through the power of the wand magic. 

During roleplaying time, John walked into the classroom space where there were some costumes, and immediately donned the princess dress. With a makeshift wand, he ran around the classroom while gently touching his classmates’ foreheads, laughing. John’s teacher, surprised by the scene, immediately questioned him about his choice to play with the dress. He smiled and replied: I want to be a fairy, teacher.

That same afternoon, John’s teacher wrote a note in the child’s notebook, inviting his mother to a conversation at school. During the conversation, the teacher expressed her concern about what had happened, and the boy’s mother promised to talk to him at home.

During dinner, John’s mother asked him why he had chosen to dress and play like a princess with his friends. Sincerely, he replied: ‘I chose the princess dress because I wanted to be a fairy, just like in Cinderella’s story. Cinderella’s fairy has a magic wand, and I wanted one like that. This way you and my dad would stop fighting, and you’d be happy just like Cinderella.’

This situation reveals how the exploration of dramatic play has its importance for a child´s emotional self-regulation and cognition. It’s not a boy thing or a girl thing, but how the child projects himself into the world of adults and experiences a range of skills that could be useful in the future when playing maki-believe.

According to Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, when playing make-believe, the child learns to deal with internal pressures, returning socially acceptable responses to the world. Children make sense of the world through imagination and play, by observing, imitating, asking questions, and relating to other children and adults.

Exploring different roles during play, whether through a wide range of toys, activities, games and make-believe is part of a child’s natural world. Regardless of whether they are boys or girls, children may act in ways that others categorise as feminine or masculine: they may be assertive, aggressive, dependent, sensitive, demonstrative, or gentle.

The expression through the choice of clothes, toys, activities or behaviors that coincide or not with the stereotypes defined by society as ‘things for girls’ or ‘things for boys’, are part of the child’s natural development, and therefore must be respected and understood by parents and teachers. A young child’s expression of gender-related preferences (in friends, activities, clothing choices, hairstyle, etc.) does not necessarily predict what their gender identity or sexual orientation will be later in life.

Biological sex or culture?

Identity is what distinguishes us among people, and involves everything from knowing one’s name, the physical characteristics of one’s own body, to the way of thinking, being, and acting. It also encompasses the environment, culture, and people with whom the child lives and establishes bonds, such as family and school. Thus, the child is born with biological sex and over time learns to think about gender through the social, cultural, and affective interactions in which they are inserted.

To the fact that a child is constantly relating, both gender and biology are important, and should not be considered separately. It is not a matter of privileging one over the other, nor say that one is more important than the other. But to consider both in their development, as they are processes that dialogue over time, and reflect important aspects of human identity.  We are born with a sex, but we socialised with a gender.

Daniela Silva is a freelance educational writer.

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